Proof of existence

A picture of a bookshelf.

I spent much of my life accumulating possessions and ideas, and trying to keep them organized.  I collected books, clothes, tools, memories, stories, articles, notes, awards, and odd objects.  I alphabetized, categorized, punched, bound, and filed.  I arranged and rearranged.  I bought containers, shelves, and bins.

I have read and re-read David Allen’s Getting Things Done to the point where it wore out and I had to buy a new copy, and I use his system carefully.  I have the capacity for hyperfocus, the flip side of my bizarrely distracted mind, and so I am able to adhere to systems if I obsess.

But still, despite my organization, there was always too much mental noise in the house, a busy clutter that meant everywhere I looked there was something undone, half forgotten, or completely perplexing.

Recently, therefore, the past two years or so, I have also been spending a lot of time just getting rid of things.  I have cleaned out my closets, thrown out half my books, tossed files from old jobs, and shredded bags and bags of saved paperwork no one will ever ask to see again.  Last year, I finally tossed all my fieldwork notes for the dissertation I defended twenty years ago.  I spent a summer going through my late mother’s possessions in the basement.

Getting rid of things is fun, and cathartic.  I like to re-read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Throwing Stuff Out (I mean, of Tidying Up) regularly because it’s so entertaining.

And most of my stuff I was keeping just in case.

Just in case what?  In case someone might challenge my claim to exist,  to have done things, or to have gone places?  In case I myself forgot I had lived a life?  Or in case someone would want to house my donated archives?  I realized it was proof of my existence.


I don’t need evidence.  I’m right here, proof of my own existence.

And I am realizing, now that I’ve tossed everything except the things I’m actually planning to use, that I feel organized.  Everywhere I look right now, as I write this, I know what  everything is and what I plan to do with it.

I have closed off all the paths to alternate realities, I have abandoned past opportunities, and I have ignored futures I’m not interested in visiting.

Excuse me.  I’m going to go read, because when I tossed most of the hopeful, possible books on my to-be-read shelf, all of a sudden the ones that were left were perfect.  I can’t wait to read them.




8 thoughts on “Proof of existence

  1. Greta says:

    I was happily reading, nodding my head to the *OH a kindred spirit* beat, until you said you threw out books.
    I had a terrible visceral reaction to that.
    Which most likely means that I need to follow your example and MAKE ROOM for whatever new marvelous books I need to read…
    Thank you!

    1. DMT says:

      I know, right? That was the hard one for me! But then I realized I was a prisoner of books I was avoiding reading and I can’t endure that.

  2. Karen A says:

    I can get past the visceral dislike of getting rid of books if I donate them and convince myself they are going to a new home where someone will read them and hopefully like them! It’s a better fate for them than neglect on one of my shelves.

    1. DMT says:

      Yes! Though I do sometimes regretfully throw books in the trash. No one wants my old books. And as a retired English teacher, I learned a while ago to be ruthless about the books that do not get read. My classroom library had two kinds of books, both of which had eventually to be tossed: books that were read into shreds and books that gathered dust.

      1. Karen A says:

        Yes, I’m sometimes surprised about how sentimental and self-righteous people can get about old books. In MA there was an organization called “Got Books” (apparently now owned by “Big Hearted Books and Clothing”) that donated books and also made money by selling higher quality items that were donated. To me it was fine that 100% of the donations didn’t go to charity and they also made a profit. They really took anything, and would take it off your hands for free. Still better than the trash! But there were people who got really mad about it, as if their old books and miscellaneous clutter was so valuable and precious, and they posted to the internet how awful this was and how you should never donate to an organization like Got Books. Seemed weird to me. (I’m not saying you’re doing this at all–just agreeing that most people don’t want old books!)

        1. DMT says:

          Yes! I was talking about this phenomenon to my daughter the other day. We are both book accumulators (she just defended her Ph.D. in English), and she has a tall bookshelf of books still taking up space in my house even though hers is full of other ones. But she agreed with me that fetishizing books is a declaration of a sort of counter-cultural identity. That identity requires the primacy of certain signifiers of literacy (not just the innate value of all books, but the higher value of “proper” grammar and mechanics compared to the content of written text). I am reminded of some of my favorite fantasy novels, in which books and precision of language are the conditions of practical magic.

          I worked in an art conservation department many years ago and I’m all too aware that most books, even the ones I owned as a child, are not actually intended to last a lifetime. The paper is acid, turns yellow, and crumbles even if it doesn’t give in to mold. The binding falls apart. The covers themselves separate. So often, I’ve picked up a childhood favorite only to find that it is a sheaf of allergy-inducing leaf litter.

          I like the phrase “miscellaneous clutter.”

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